Commentary: Too Many Baby Boomers Are Stuck in the Musical Past
“Oh, I believe in yes-ter-day,” Paul McCartney sang.
It may be the Beatles lyric heard most often. It might also be the mantra of baby boomers when it comes to their musical choices.
How many boomers were thrilled to see Paul and Ringo together on the Grammys last month? How many traveled to see the Rolling Stones in concert last year? Or bought tickets to see Billy Joel in his once-a-month gig at Madison Square Garden, or the Eagles on their recent sold-out tours?
As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, the question is: Why aren’t boomers — and I’m one — more open to the music of today instead of being so obsessed with the sounds of yesterday?
“New music is the province of the studiously indolent,” noted Lin Brehmer, 59, a DJ for Chicago’s WXRT-FM. “There is lots of great new music whether you have time to listen to it or not.”
Boomers are too busy paying their kids’ college tuition or babysitting their grandkids or taking care of their aging parents. Who has time to putz around with Pandora or Spotify to find new artists? Who wants to sit through lame skits on Saturday Night Live just to see the cool new band your children are talking about?
Instead, many boomers take the easy route and shell out big bucks to go to the museum-like concerts of Fleetwood Mac, Elton John and the Who, or delve into the latest boxed set by the Beatles, Bob Dylan or Sly Stone. Too many AARP members want the familiar, the comfortable, the easy.
Paying attention to the Beatles is somehow reassuring to boomers.
“They uplift us and we can say ‘We’re not that old’ — as long as you avoid the mirror,” said New Jersey writer Penelope Rowlands, 62, who was at the airport when the Beatles arrived in New York City in 1964. “We totally identified with them. They’re still cool. So maybe we’re OK, too, in the eyes of the younger people.”
Yes, we get insecure as we grow older, don’t we? Maybe we can see the end rather than the future. Maybe we don’t rule the world anymore. So we find comfort in our prideful past.
McCartney and Starr sure looked great on the Grammys, didn’t they? They’re older than me and don’t have one shade of gray.
“We want our heroes to be forever young,” said Barry Faulk, 52, author of British Rock Modernism, 1967-1977.
Don’t we all wish.
“You hope your heroes and yourself age gracefully,” said Brehmer. “As long as Keith Richards is alive, he imparts immortality for baby boomers. And he’s still chain smoking.”
Rowlands, author of the new The Beatles Are Here! 50 Years After the Band’s Arrival in America, thinks boomers viewed the Beatles “as mythic figures, gods striding across the stage.” But she no longer worships the Fab Four. After all, she said, “Paul just married a Jersey girl.”
She now sees the Beatles as old friends whom we’ve welcomed into the intimacy of our living rooms for 50 years. For many boomers, their music — or that of any other golden oldie — is like comfort food.
Said Brehmer: “When things are bleak and we turn to music, a side of the Beatles’ White Album is like a plate of mac and cheese to me.”
You can have your mac and cheese. And your TV dinners. And your music of your youth.
I don’t go to my high school reunion simply to relive old times. I want to know: What’s new with you? Likewise, I’d prefer to see living, breathing heroes who still make new music.
McCartney, Dylan and especially Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young are challenging themselves with new material. They are proving their vitality while still acknowledging their past.
“I think Paul feels obligated and responsible to not just be a Beatles legend,” Faulk said, “but to somehow keep on moving.”
Even if Springsteen’s new album High Hopes is a bit of a letdown, he’s challenging himself with new tunes and new collaborators — notably guitarist Tom Morello, a Gen X hero from Rage Against the Machine who adds new textures and dimensions to the E Street Band.
Or maybe, to carry the food metaphor further, it’s time for boomers to try some brand new, organic flavors.
“The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons and Jake Bugg are using instruments and musical styles that are as appealing to 55-year-olds as they are to 18-year-olds,” Brehmer said.
Don’t think this musical nostalgia is limited to baby boomers. Gen X-ers flock to see the likes of Journey, Guns ‘N Roses and New Kids on the Block. (Better choices who keep it fresh: Foo Fighters, Green Day and Prince.)
My suggestion: When you get together with old friends, ask to hear what’s new — as long as they don’t talk about their health issues. We know we’re not half the man we used to be. McCartney already told us that.